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Book Excerpt: Have you ever tried a sustainable safari in Africa?

In safari tourism, the balance between humans, development, and wildlife is a difficult one to strike; but there are safari companies trying to do just that

By Esha Chhabra
Published: Saturday 10 February 2024

Blue wildebeest rushing to cross the Grumeti River in Tanzania. Representative photo from iStockBlue wildebeest rushing to cross the Grumeti River in Tanzania. Representative photo from iStock

Keeping natural spaces open, and the wildlife in them free to roam, is essential to ecotourism—be it in Scandinavia or in East Africa. Just as tourists flock to see the raw beauty of Norway, hundreds of thousands travel to view the wildlife of Africa. But it’s a catch-22: tourism needs tourists; but too many tourists spoil what they are there to see, until the destination itself begins to disappear.

Luke Bailes has spent his entire life in the African tourism industry, and it has made him less interested in droves of tourists and more keen on using tourism as a tool to fund conservation work. As founder of Singita, a South Africa–based safari and conservation company that has more than one million acres under its management, he wants to continue the high-value, low-impact model he pioneered twenty-six years ago in South Africa.

“Africa will need to regulate its tourism. Otherwise, we end up with too many safari vehicles, leaving tracks, and tourists usurping precious resources like water. It’s not good for the animals, the environment, and it’s not the best experience for visitors,” he says.

In Tanzania’s Grumeti Reserve, Singita has leased 350,000 acres from the Tanzanian government on a thirty-three-year lease. The goal is to bring back wildlife that was previously hunted and poached in the region. Bailes got into the safari business by accident. Born and bred in South Africa, he often went on low-budget safaris with his family in the bush. When friends asked if they could join him, the idea of building a travel lodge became a viable business option. Given that the Bailes family had access to land just outside South Africa’s Kruger National Park, he started to fix up an old property and use it for a safari experience.

Simply put, the hundred-year vision, he says, is for Singita to preserve and protect large areas of land on the African continent. “The world’s population is increasing; the demand to see nature and wildlife will increase too. Yet we also have to leave nature to itself and ensure that man does not interfere,” Bailes says.

In 2006, Bailes met the American philanthropist, Paul Tudor Jones, who had acquired the Grumeti Reserves from the Tanzanian government. They partnered up to create the current Singita offering of five properties: Singita Sasakwa Lodge, Sabora Tented Camp, Faru Faru Lodge, Serengeti House, and small glamping accommodations referred to as Singita Explore. Each lodge has completely different characteristics. The largest lodge, Sasakwa, is referred to as home base. There visitors enjoy the impressive panoramic vistas of the savanna. The Sabora Tented Camp has a 1920s-era feel, enabling guests to camp in tents fitted with four-poster beds placed on rugs, surrounded by vintage suitcases, lanterns, and old English furnishings. Animals occasionally meander through the site. Meanwhile, Faru Faru Lodge has just ten rooms in a more modern and minimalist style with floor-to-ceiling windows, framing views of the Grumeti River; the dining space overlooks a watering hole where lions, monkeys, impalas, and baboons come for a drink.

The lodges are furnished with upcycled and recycled materials wherever possible. Accent pieces and glassware at Faru Faru come from the Shanga Shop in Arusha, a social enterprise company that employs disabled individuals to repurpose glass into homeware and décor items. Several of the properties already run on solar power or are being converted to solar. (One of their South African lodges just introduced Tesla Powerpack batteries, which power 90 percent of the lodge.) Singita eliminated 90 percent of single-use plastic from the lodges, and 80 percent of the food is sourced from nearby villages where Singita operates community development projects.

The staff is also a familial bunch with brothers and sisters working in different components of the business. Gendi Gohebo Gorobani, for example, works at the Faru Faru lodge, taking care of guests. A

tall, seemingly always happy chap, he greets guests when they arrive, and then stays by their side throughout their stay—providing, essentially, a friendly butler service. A Tanzanian, he extols the virtues of chai at breakfast, shares his favorite local fare with dinner guests, and bounces from room to room taking care of any personal requests, working long hours most days. Coming from a nearby village, Gorobani is happy to be working at Singita: “I get to meet people from all around the world. That is the best part.” Despite his long days at the lodge, he’s offered support that would have been hard to find elsewhere: he started as a trainee in the staff canteen and now is the face of the company for so many visitors. And he has a family member nearby: his brother, Pascal Gohebo Gorobani, works as a scout with Gold in the anti-poaching squad.

The numerous community development programs—from farming and a community culinary school to preserving wildlife and biodiversity—are all managed by the Grumeti Fund, the not-for-profit conservation partners of the safari company. Stephen Cunliffe, a South African who had worked for other conservation efforts on the continent, came on board to run the Grumeti Fund in 2015. “Aside from just overseeing the various projects within the fund, we also have to liaise with the government. If we’re going to improve road conditions, change any of the dynamics here, operate machinery, we need to work [with the] Tanzanian government and other stakeholders,” he says.

The fund employs 165 people, the biggest component of which is law enforcement and the scouts who help Gold with his anti-poaching program. During the dry season, which lasts from about May to October, they hire another sixty individuals to help with seasonal activities like fighting fires. Cunliffe also spends time thinking about how to manage other, less-publicized issues facing the region, such as the possible damming of the Mara River, which could, he says, have a “catastrophic impact on the ecosystem.”

One of the least-discussed environmental concerns is the invasion of non-native species. Plants such as the Mexican sunflower and prickly pear have been introduced in villages or other lodges in the park and have spread easily, their seeds carried for miles by animals, insects, and the weather. Now, they pose a threat to existing vegetation and can be poisonous for some animals to consume.

But the biggest challenge is poaching and human-wildlife conflict. According to a survey conducted by the Grumeti Fund in 2016, 86 percent of households and eighteen of twenty village leaders named wildlife intrusion, particularly by elephants, as their key concern. A full 80 percent of households said that they had already been impacted by human-wildlife conflict, and 77 percent blamed elephants invading their crops and causing damage.

“This is going to be the hardest challenge because you’ve got [Lake Victoria] right here, villages are on the boundary of the protected area, and every year [they’re] encroaching [more] because of the [villagers’] need for space for cattle to graze. The fact that there is no fence, the conflict grows exponentially,” says Cunliffe.

The Grumeti Fund is tackling this problem with the anti-poaching squad led by Gold and his right-hand man, Gotera Gamba, who is the head of the fund’s law enforcement operations. Gamba knows the problem intimately. He used to hunt the very animals he now hopes to save. At eighteen he started poaching, but after years of hiding out in the bush to capture animals, he called it quits. “The conditions were really bad. It was dangerous, hard, and I just got tired,” he recalls.

Even though his work requires long days—waking up at 4 a.m., patrolling for five hours, making a long drive back to base camp, training and late-night missions—the forty-year-old says it’s worth the hard work and risk. Risk is a given in this line of work. “I’ve had a few arrows, that had poison, just miss me,” Gamba says. “I also saw one man from our team get shot by an arrow.” So far, Gold and Gamba have lost only one of their men. It is a sad reality they live with: “We signed up for this work. We know what it entails,” Gold says.

The members of the Grumeti Fund’s law-enforcement and anti-poaching squad come primarily from nearby communities, individuals who understand the geography and the local players in poaching. The scouts operate from twelve camps, observation points located throughout the reserve that enable them to keep a watchful eye. They also take that knowledge and learning from the field and share it with friends and families in their communities. Gamba has six children, and he’s hopeful that the next generation will have a different outlook on animals. The most resistance he’s faced has been from an older man in his village. “I grew up with this man. He cannot walk. I go over and help him get around. But he says the animals are God’s gift to be hunted.”

“And he even helps him financially,” Gold adds, shaking his head. “The work he does at Singita enables him to look after [this old man]. I don’t think he’s won him over yet, but it’s good that they can have this dialogue.”

Changing human behavior is the hardest thing to do. “You have to remember that people have lived in these areas for generations and used bush meat as a local protein source. It’s very easy for someone like me to say it’s wrong. But these people have always been hunters,” Gold says.

I ask Gamba if he’s still a minority in the community. He nods. “Yes, I’m one in a few. And I’ve only been able to change the mindset of fifteen people or so. Not many in all these years.” He shares his dream to educate children at the schools in the villages about animals. “That is how we solve the problem for the future,” he says.

The other option—fencing off the reserve—is contentious and hotly debated among conservationists in the region. “‘Fence’ in the Serengeti is a swear word,” says Gold. “Sometimes people sitting in the United States or Europe, who are distant from the problem, don’t understand the nuances of it.”

But then how do you ensure that the eighty thousand people who live on the periphery of the Serengeti and the reserve will not run into conflict with the animals? “For many of these farmers, they don’t see an elephant as this wild, beautiful thing,” Gold says. “They see it as a threat because it came and ate through their crop, or ripped up the farm, and then maybe even trampled on small animals as it was escaping.”

Next to Gold’s office is a room filled with monitors and tracking devices, much of it donated by Seattle-based Vulcan Inc., led by the late Paul Allen, who was a keen supporter of Singita’s work. That may be the best answer for now: keep an eye on the elephants, geotag them, and study their behavior. From here, staff can monitor the activities of animals, particularly elephants, throughout the reserve. They can collect data on where snares were placed, where poached animals were found, where conflict arose, and use these findings to predict future movements by hunters and poachers.

Most guests do not see this side of Singita, unless they sign up for a participation safari, one of Singita’s latest offerings. Hopefully, it will become a growing revenue stream for the Grumeti Fund’s conservation work. In 2017, Singita was able to host the first group of participation safari guests; in 2018, an additional eight guests helped collar elephants with GPS-enabled satellite collars and witness conservation work firsthand. For this privilege they pay $25,000 each, which supports the Grumeti Fund’s conservation projects.

Cunliffe explains that the idea behind all these experiences—for guests to see the antipoaching unit, help with the elephant-collaring project, see their specially trained K9 police dogs sniff out hidden contraband—is to offer people a glimpse behind the scenes. “Plus, we can then engage a group of individuals with high net worth who will hopefully become longtime supporters of the fund,” he says. One of the guests did just that, donating $350,000 to a K9 unit. This is a concept that Singita had introduced in 2012. The dogs scare off poachers, who, when they realize they’re being tracked and followed by these dogs, are less interested in entering that part of the bush to hunt.

These types of “immersive safaris” are designed for travelers who want to get involved, are more conservation-minded, and have the money to enjoy such experiences. Some critics may dismiss these safaris as experiences available only to the 1 percent, but Bailes sees it differently: he is keen on channeling more of these tourists’ money to much-needed conservation work.

In safari tourism, the balance between humans, development, and wildlife is a difficult one to strike. “Some would like it if we don’t have any lodges or any people in these ecosystems,” says Bailes. “But then how do you attract the funding needed to support the program?

The pressure on pristine wilderness is like never before, and we have to take that seriously.”

The word “safari,” after all, means “a journey” in Swahili. “And traveling to Africa,” Bailes says, “can be a really powerful journey. Many have said it’s a spiritual one—to be in such a landscape where you are not the focus.

Excerpted with permission from Working to Restore: Why We Do Business in The Regenerative Era by Esha Chhabra. @2023Penguin Random House India

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